Tech Innovation

Will drone delivery quadcopters see with RealSense eyes?


We’ve already seen how Intel’s RealSense 3D camera can transform an all-in-one PC into a dual-touch creative tool, motion capture your face in real time and even be used to transplant your head onto a Star Trek action figurine. Such applications are the immediate future of the technology.

But Intel also hopes that the 3D capabilities that RealSense offers will spur the development of a new generation of intelligent robots and innovative drone delivery services.

The RealSense system is a combination of a digital camera, infrared lens, infrared laser projector lens and dedicated image processing hardware. Squeezed into a module the size of a stick of chewing gum, these components work together to capture 3D data — scanning a face, tracking hand gestures, or even mapping the surrounding environment.

Asctec drone with RealSense
This AscTec Firefly drone (left) features multiple RealSense cameras to give it a 360-degree field of view (right) and enhanced depth perception.

You might not get excited by the idea of environment mapping. But you should.

“If you look at almost all things biological, like humans, monkeys, dogs, eagles, snakes, everything has two eyes and three-dimensional visual perception capability,” says Achin Bhowmik, Vice President & General Manager, Perceptual Computing at Intel. “They use these to understand and navigate the world around them and communicate with each other.”

It’s why drone builder Ascending Technologies has incorporated six RealSense cameras into one of its Firefly UAVs, gifting it a 360-degree view of the world around it. The 1Kg drone, which uses an Intel Core i7 processor, was on show at the Intel Future Showcase 2015. You can see how its hex-vision system works in the video below.

Working together with Intel, Ascending Technologies has used RealSense systems to create an advanced obstacle avoidance technology. In a world where Amazon, DHL and other delivery companies are planning same-day drone delivery services, this sort of advanced vision system will be ideal for boosting safety and navigational accuracy.

When you “can build flying drones that can avoid running into humans and other obstacles,” says Achin Bhowmik, “you can pretty much transform computing.” It’s not a concept either. The technology works. Watch the RealSense-equipped ASCTEC Firefly auto-fly through the woods in the video below.

Of course, while such technology makes delivery drone services possible, red tape could still hold back their deployment. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority issues specific guidelines for what it calls ‘small unmanned aircraft’, restricting them to line of sight operation and a range that is limited to a distance of 500 metres (1,640 feet) and a height of 400 feet.

While these current rules would stop a drone delivery service from flying in the UK, it’s only a matter of time before companies demonstrate that autonomous technology is reliable enough and safe enough to buzz small parcels and packets directly to your home. RealSense could play a big part in making that happen sooner rather than later. — Dean Evans (@evansdp).


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